Gospel of Jesus' Wife: Forgery or Irrelevant?

A small papyrus fragment from the antiquities market was announced to contain the words “…Jesus said to them my wife…” This sentence fragment immediately sparked interest and controversy due to the apparent contradiction of the statement to information about the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament and the writings of the early Church. Popular fiction and conspiracy theories also have lately explored this idea, adding skewed perceptions about the life of Jesus in society. Initially, some scholars considered it likely that the papyrus fragment was authentic. Further examination then revealed an ever increasing majority of scholars claiming it was a forgery. At least two separate evaluations point out that the fragment appears to have copied and rearranged phrases and sentences from a modern text of the Gnostic Coptic Gospel of Thomas, and perhaps additional Gnostic writings of the period. Other scholars have questioned the letter forms, suggesting that the style does not match known Coptic documents from antiquity. Further, because the papyrus came from the antiquities market rather than an archaeological excavation or in situ discovery, many questions have yet to be answered as to its origin. The current owner supposedly acquired the fragment in 1997, and it is believed that the previous owner acquired the fragment in East Germany in the 1960s. Before that, there is no record of the papyrus. However, the most recent tests have concluded that the papyrus itself is from antiquity, dating to between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, and that the carbon composition of the ink is consistent with ancient ink types. Yet, a subsequent analysis demonstrates an odd and significant similarity in composition to another unprovenanced ancient papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John. This lead to the suggestion that the document may have been forged using an ancient papyrus fragment and techniques to recreate ancient ink. Although the debate has not been absolutely settled as to the authenticity of the papyrus, an examination of the text can be done under the assumption that the papyrus is authentic. This examination should demonstrate if the papyrus and its translation would be historically significant even if it is authentic.
The papyrus fragment may have originated in Egypt, and according to analysis, assuming it is authentic, the epigraphy and language (a Coptic dialect called Lycopolitan) suggests it would have been composed no later than the 6th century AD, but perhaps as early as the 4th century AD. It measures approximately 4 cm by 8 cm and contains 8 partial lines written in Coptic, a descendent of the ancient Egyptian language but with a script resembling Greek. The 8 lines have been translated as:
…not me. My mother gave to me li[fe]
…the disciples said to Jesus
…deny. Mary is worthy of it
…Jesus said to them my wife…
…she will be able to be my disciple…
…let wicked people swell up…
…as for me I dwell with her in order to…
…an image…
On the reverse side, only a few words are legible—three, mother, and forth which—that contribute nothing to the context or understanding of the document. The most notable lines contain references to disciples and Jesus, mention of Mary, Jesus mentioning “my wife,” and “I dwell with her.” If simply reading the phrases as one continuous narrative, these lines appear to suggest that the author of the papyrus claimed that Jesus of Nazareth had a wife, had disciples, was associated with someone called Mary, and perhaps dwelt with a woman. However, it should be noted that only parts of each sentence are represented and the entire papyrus is without context, so very little information can actually be understood. First, it does appear that the Jesus being referred to is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, since disciples of Jesus are mentioned and there may be some type of spiritual reference about punishment for the wicked in line 6. The Mary that appears in line 3 is not specified, and it could be any Mary mentioned in the New Testament or even someone else named Mary. Mary Magdalene is usually specified as Mary of Magdala, while the mother of Jesus, with no title or place of origin attached and an early reference to “my mother,” is the more likely candidate. The words “…Jesus said to them my wife…”in line 4 along with “I dwell with her” in line 7 appear to suggest that Jesus was married. However, there are a number of problems with this idea. There is no context and sentence breaks cannot even be determined for certain. Therefore, “Jesus said to them” may be the end of one sentence and “my wife” may be the beginning of the next sentence. The line “I dwell with her” may not be referring to Jesus at all, but to the author of the papyrus. Yet, even if it is assumed that Jesus is saying “my wife” and stating “I dwell with her” referring back to the earlier line, this does not necessarily mean that the author of the papyrus was claiming that Jesus was married. The Coptic words for woman and wife can be the same, and thus Jesus may be only saying “my woman” and referring to a female he is talking to or about—perhaps the “she will be able to be my disciple” in line 5. If the phrase is referring to Jesus having a wife, there is a common precedent in the New Testament for this type of metaphorical language referring to the Church. For example, the church is referred to as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb [Jesus]” (Revelation 21:9). In the papyrus, Jesus may be following this metaphorical use and talking about the Church as his wife and that God will “dwell” with the Church—another common idea presented in the New Testament (cf. Romans 9:11; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:3). Finally, even if it is assumed that the papyrus is authentic and it is stating that Jesus had a human wife, this still does not substantiate the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had a human wife because of the date and origin of the papyrus. The papyrus presumably comes from the mid or late 4th century AD, almost 350 years after Jesus died, and from Egypt –a region where Gnosticism (developed in the 2nd century AD and often viewed Jesus as simply human or one who had achieved some form of divine, but distinctly different and heretical in comparison to how Jesus is presented in the Bible) in this era was extremely prevalent and from where many Gnostic “gospels” with outlandish claims completely contrary to all of the accounts of Jesus from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD have surfaced. In that environment, finding a papyrus that made claims making Jesus seem more human and less divine is to be expected. Yet, the idea that Jesus had a wife is completely contrary to the original and contemporary source documents about his life. The sensational claim that this papyrus proves Jesus had a human wife can be disregarded on many grounds—date, theological environment, lack of context, unclear meaning, metaphorical uses, and contradiction of the primary sources. Regardless of whether or not the document itself is a modern forgery, or if it even claims that Jesus was married, it is irrelevant in that it provides no ancient evidence from the 1st or 2nd centuries AD that Jesus of Nazareth had a wife.

~Titus

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